No show on Broadway has a song list as extensive and immediately recognizable as Motown The Musical, Berry Gordy's jukebox musical about his Motown record company. The show is now returning to Broadway (at the Nederlander Theatre) following an earlier run from 2013-2015 at the Lunt-Fontanne. It successfully crams over 50 of Motown's greatest hits into just under three hours, all while attempting to tell the history of the company and how its music related to the larger events of American society. It's a dizzying experience that feels like a good nostalgia concert at best, a work of self-serving propaganda at worst.
Unsurprisingly, our protagonist also happens to be the book author and producer: In the story, Berry Gordy (Chester Gregory) grows up in Detroit idolizing Joe Frazier. Naturally, he starts writing songs (the shift from boxing to music is never really illuminated), first for Jackie Wilson (Erick Buckley), but later for his own roster of artists: He forms his own label with new best friend Smokey Robinson (the irresistibly likable Jesse Nager), signing talented artists like Martha Reeves (Chante Carmel), Mary Wells (Martina Sykes), and, of course, the Supremes. Gordy views this latter group as something of a pet project, not least because of his love affair with lead singer Diana Ross (Allison Semmes). Meanwhile, Motown artist Marvin Gaye (the fiery Jarran Muse) pens songs that speak to racial injustice against the backdrop of civil unrest and war. They're creating an indispensable American sound, but as the music industry increasingly centralizes into a few corporate labels, can Gordy save Motown as an independent brand?
No, he can't: Gordy sold Motown to MCA and Boston Ventures in 1988. Sony/ATV Music Publishing now controls the classic Motown catalogue (CEO Doug Morris is another producer on this show). Not that you would know any of that from the script, which ends on a high note with the whole gang reuniting for the label's 25th anniversary special in 1983. We understand why Gordy would want to focus on the glory years of Motown (it's the same reason the Gloria Estefan musical On Your Feet! ends in 1991) and this isn't nearly his most glaring omission: Despite making a big first impression, original Supreme Florence Ballard (Krisha Marcano doing her utmost in an underwritten role) fades into the background and then disappears completely before being replaced by Cindy Birdsong (Sykes). There's a real drama there, but it becomes merely a footnote in this somewhat sanitized retelling. Broadway bio-musicals are no different than published biographies: The officially sanctioned history of Motown is not nearly as thrilling as the unauthorized tell-all (that would be Dreamgirls).
The awesome score should be enough to make us forgive Gordy for his revisionist history, but the truncated and adrenaline-infused musical numbers too often leave us feeling hollow and bewildered. Music supervisor Ethan Popp is the Martin Yan of musical arrangements, slicing and dicing songs with ruthless precision, leaving only the choicest cuts behind. The result is akin to watching early-season American Idol, in which every performer is desperately jockeying to make a vocally acrobatic impression in less than a minute.
Several members of this incredibly talented cast do just that: J.J. Batteast wows us as a young Michael Jackson. Gregory lends an unapologetically soulful voice to his emotionally guarded performance as Gordy. With honey-coated vocals, Allison Semmes has definitely captured Diana Ross's strange faux sincerity, waving to "friends" in the crowd and cooing her in-concert interlude monologues (somewhat ironically, Semmes played the elusive Ballard in the 2013 production).
For almost three hours, they race through Charles Randolph-Wright's energetic yet clunky staging, which does little to illuminate the fuzzy chronology of Gordy's script. Luckily, a handy timeline in printed in the program for those who become lost.
Costume designer ESosa somewhat helps to establish time and place, most mostly he just adds to the glitz, dazzling us with a seemingly endless parade of metallic suits and sequined gowns. David Korins' lumbering half-choice of a set features a series of expanding and contracting frames into which Daniel Brodie shoots his fuzzy projections: We know the characters are in Paris from the cartoon Eiffel Tower; we know this show is 100 percent cheesy from the goofy shooting star that passes over the screen when they kiss.
If you can ignore the cringe-inducing book scenes, you will probably have a good time at Motown, especially if you're the kind of person who can't listen to a whole song on your iPod without hitting skip. The songs included ("Do You Love Me," "My Girl," and "Dancing in the Street," to name a few) are classics of American music. The beats are irresistible, the melodies infectious: You're guaranteed to hum them all the way home.
At one point in the story, Gordy insists that Ross cannot take her act to the next level unless she is seen on national TV singing a "standard" (the kind of music sung by Frank Sinatra). He should have realized that he and his company were writing the next chapter of the Great American Songbook. These pop songs are now standards in their own right, and they absolutely belong on Broadway. If only they could have arrived in a nicer ride.